Monthly Archives: April 2014

Parisian Walkways

When it comes to French history, I am a Second Empire man. Not that I have any special reverence for the Emperor Napoleon Ш or for his regime, but because I am a tremendous admirer of the grandly reconstructed Paris created to his order by his Prefect of the Seine, Baron Haussmann.

Normally the idea of a planned city fills me with horror because it is so much associated in my mind with the wholesale vandalism of post-war planning in the UK. And if I had lived in second empire Paris, I would probably have opposed the scheme on the ground that it would destroy a quaintly higgledy-piggledy medieval town. But I would have been wrong. What works so well in Haussmann’s Paris is the uniformity of appearance and height in the townscape. It creates a coherent whole. It is laid-out with human beings and their need to interact in mind, and the resulting streetscape encourages one to walk or to dawdle as a flâneur. It somehow also (paradoxically) succeeds in generating a considerable degree of local character from one quarter to the next. I think this is because it is built to be beautiful and accessible first, rather than to conform to an ideological conception about how people should be made to live.

In my novel, Bring Him in Mad, (set in the early 1860s) the pretty horsebreaker Agnes Willoughby flits over to Paris to spend a summer with her lover, the operatic tenor Antonio Giuglini. They disport themselves with fellow free spirits at pavement tables outside restaurants on the Grand Boulevards. These magnificent thoroughfares of central Paris are synonymous with the city, but there are many less-well-known (and considerably quieter) areas that equally exemplify Haussmann’s impressive vision and that are pleasanter to visit. I went to Paris a few weeks ago (on my own, because I can’t expect anyone else to share my fascination with buildings and town planning!) to explore some of these.

Parks were a key element of the second empire’s reconstruction. Unlike the Bois de Boulogne, the peaceful Parc des Buttes-Chaumont to the northeast of the city is a generally unknown gem. It was apparently constructed out of a former quarry, which enabled its builders to incorporate a towering waterfall, and a citadel atop of a high rocky outcrop (my photo):IMG_0513

The park is fringed with splendid terraces in the second empire style, and Sacré-Coeur can be seen in the distance from the citadel (my photo):


I walked from the park along the Haussmann-constructed Avenue Simon Bolivar and Rue Des Pyrenees, and had a nice lunch at the Place Gambetta by Pére Lachaise cemetery. This whole area is enormously interesting and agreeable, being inhabited by ordinary Parisian people unlike the city’s teeming touristic hotspots. I like the similarity of the buildings’ façades and of their relative elevations. Apparently Haussmann’s stipulated  standard layout and  maximum height for the terraces gives them their characteristic mansard roofs and dormer attic windows. My photo below is of one such façade, which I think is on the Boulevard St Germain:IMG_0543

I also went to the Jardin des Serres d’Auteuil, which is like a Parisian (but more serene) version of Kew Gardens, with its fine complex of greenhouses. The figures in the foreground are made from wire frames, plant pots and foliage:IMG_0540

I passed a wonderful few days exploring many fascinating areas, and riding from one to another on the art nouveau metro system which is so in keeping with the elegant streets above it.